A True Story – How My Mother Became Interested in My Father

When my mother was in college in Taiwan, one day she looked at the chalkboard and asked her friend, “Who’s writing is that?”  You see, Chinese characters tell a lot about a person.  It’s a bit like drawing, and it can reveal many things about you – whether you’re playful, imaginative, disciplined, strong in different ways…  It turns out that the person who wrote the characters on the chalkboard was the T.A. in her class, my father.  And this is how my mother first became interested in my father – because of his handwriting.  

My mother and father came from very different worlds.  She was a social butterfly.  She had many suitors from China and Taiwan and from different places around the world.  They called her the “Black Rose” because she didn’t have the white, porcelain skin of classical beauty and because when a man tried to woo her, they would most likely be hurt.  She never lacked any confidence, and I think this is what made her truly beautiful.  She was a very kind, honest, generous, fun-loving spirit, but also immensely gracious.  When I was young, I was very shy around boys.  She told me, “Why should you be afraid or embarrassed?  When a boy looks at you, you should think or pretend they are nothing to you.”  But she advised that if I truly liked a boy, I should keep myself at a distance.  She said, “If you show your interest too soon, the boy will not like you so much.  But if you keep your distance, he will grow fonder.”  

At any rate, my mother, who had so many men courting her, eventually fell in love with my father.  Her mother objected because my father was poor.  He could hardly afford to eat and ate many bananas, which were cheap.  He had passed the rigorous exam to enter Taiwan University, but he could not afford the tuition.  Because he could not afford books, he studied what he could from books in the bookstores.  He tutored a young girl, took the exam again and passed, and her father eventually offered to pay for part of his tuition, and this is how my father came to be a student at Taiwan University.  

My father never told me these stories.  He is rather silent about his life, and much of what I learned about him came from my mother.  For seven years, my mother could not marry my father because her mother objected, but eventually she got the blessing of her father.  During this period, her mother passed away at the early age of 44 from stomach cancer.  After they married, my mother had a much harder time of things.  She didn’t even know how to boil water when they were married.  And the first dinner she made for his friends was a disaster.  She put a chicken in a pot and just let it cook and cook, and by the time his friends arrived, it had been in the pot so long that the chicken disintegrated so that they basically ate soup (with the bones).  

My mother was an amazing woman.  By the time I was a child, she was in America, sewing our clothes (she was also very talented in knitting), cooking delicious meals every day, taking care of the bills, taking care of the children, working here and there as a data processor or in the local library.  She wallpapered our entire dining room and one of our bathrooms beautifully.  I don’t know how she did this by herself or where she learned how to do it.  After coming to America, she had few possessions.  My first baby crib was apparently a cardboard box, and my parents truly struggled to make ends meet.  But my mother loved my father immensely.  The only person she loved more than my father was God. (She went to Catholic school in China.)  Her English was never as good as my father’s, not nearly, and she struggled with this all her life.  

They had few possessions, but there was one thing she kept in a bank vault.  These were the letters (aerograms) that my father wrote her every day after he came to the U.S. to study for his PhD.   It was not easy at that time for Chinese people to come to the U.S., and so my mother and father were separated for more than three years.  But every day, he wrote her a letter.  And my older sister who was only a baby at the time in Taiwan would jump with joy every time they got a letter from my father and say, “Papa’s letter!”  These letters were the most precious things to my mother, enough that she would keep them in a bank vault, and my sister and I now have them but, unfortunately, with our limited Chinese, we have a hard time reading and understanding them (especially because many of the characters are written in cursive letters).  

When I noticed later that my mother’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s, my father did tell me something.  My mother practiced my father’s handwriting.

Why I Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese character safeI sit down and arrange a few things before me – paper, ink, inkstone, brush and zi tie, which literally means “word obedience” or “word submission” but can be translated into “word copybook.” (The zi tie is a printed copy of an original work of calligraphy, usually done by a master. This copybook serves as the model for calligraphers.) I pour a bit of ink into the well of the inkstone. 

I then take the brush, which is made of wolf hair or goat hair, dip it into the ink which I have poured into the well of the stone and gently wipe it across the surface of the stone to get rid of any excess ink. I gather myself. Before the attack, I relax, concentrate, breathe.

My goal is is to copy the characters I see on the zi tie as best as I can. I use one zi tie religiously, which was recommended to me by my father. He said, if you can learn to copy these characters well, then you can write any calligraphy well. “Write” is not quite the right word, I think. Perhaps “draw” is more appropriate. You are, after all, using a brush to draw each stroke of each character.

At any rate, I realize that with every stroke of the brush, I am making an attack. I need to concentrate in order for the brush to obey my will and do what I want it to do. Once you make a stroke, you cannot modify it or take it back. You have only one chance. When the stroke appears on paper, it is what it is.

The first thing I’m aware of when I’m writing calligraphy is whether my stroke is balanced or not. Every character in Chinese requires balance. In fact, a single unbalanced stroke can make an entire character look unstable, as if it would fall easily if you were to push it gently with your hand. Each character should stand upright so that it has poise.

The second thing I’m aware of is knowing that certain strokes aren’t as good as I’d like or even complete failures, but I can’t paint over them. I can’t change them, so I keep going. Even if I’m disappointed, I finish the rest of the character as dutifully as I can, and I try to keep in mind that each new stroke is another chance at doing well. When this happens, I realize that practicing Chinese calligraphy is a metaphor. Accept what happened, move on and try again.

I keep dipping the brush in the ink and wiping the excess ink away on the stone and copying the characters until I have a full page of characters in front of me. That’s when I realize something else. For the whole time that I was practicing this art, I forgot everything else – all my worries, my troubles, unfinished chores or what I needed to do later. I was completely absorbed in a simple act of copying characters.

The written Chinese language is so poetic. When I write in general, I feel alive. But when I write Chinese, I feel it even more keenly because when you write in Chinese, you need to pay attention to how you construct every word. If you miss a dot or a line is too long or too short, it can change the character into a completely different one. Writing Chinese requires you to remain aware and stay balanced. Chinese characters are pictorial in origin. It is the only major modern language which remains so and has no alphabet. Therefore, each character is known by memory.  

However, many characters actually make sense in their separate parts. For example, if you place the character for “woman” under the radical for “roof,” you arrive at the word that means “safe,” i.e. a woman under a roof is “safe.” Now, if you were to write this character, and you put the roof too high above the woman or the roof is crooked, it might not look or feel “safe.” You need to write the strokes so that they look and feel like they go together. In other words, you achieve a sense of harmony. 

When I practice calligraphy, something magical happens. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. But it is a sense of peace and of being alive that infuses me and travels through my brush. If you practice every day, you start to notice something else about your characters. They start to gain strength. Not just balance, but real strength. Now that you are better at taming your brush, you can channel your energy so that the soft tip of hair becomes like a sword and can carve sharp lines into the paper. It is said that a great master can literally carve characters with his brush into a wood table. I think this is an exaggeration, but it also contains some truth. Calligraphy is, in fact, a type of kung fu. It uses the same principles. Energy is channeled in the same way so that with practice and concentration, you can achieve balance, flexibility, focus, awareness, a sense of harmony and strength through simple actions.

But more importantly, writing calligraphy helps me realize that what’s important is now. It is this stroke before me that I want to make and am making. You can’t think of your last stroke with pride or disappointment if you want to do well because you have to concentrate on this single moment. So focus. In the end, for the half hour or hour that I sat down to produce a sheet of copied characters, I feel calm. I feel like I disposed of a lot of garbage in my head.  

I remember something my father said when I first tried writing Chinese calligraphy when I was young. I said the character for “one” which has only one stroke, looked easy to write. He replied somewhat mockingly, “It’s the easiest that is the hardest.” I think I understand now what he meant. Your characters express what is going on with your body, your imagination, your character and the discipline you have gained. It is entirely visible to the world in that one, single stroke. You can’t balance it out with another stroke or dot. It is naked in the moment in time that you created it. It takes courage to write the character “one.” I’m still working on it. 

Chinese brush inkstone           Chinese calligraph